Old New York
Edith Wharton’s “The Age of Innocence” portrays a world of strict moral and social conduct through the feminism lens. Wharton’s characters are expected to live their life just as what is expected of them. Individualism is not an option for the characters in the novel. They are expected to think, act, and even dress a certain way, especially the women. Edith uses two cousins, Ellen and May, as the major concern in her novel. The women characters are depicted as both victims of their own life as well as conspirators that determine their own fate. Edith presents two women characters to show two contrastive approaches to life and the world they live in. One lives her life by the rules and norms. The other lives her life just the way she wants. Through these two characters Edith Wharton’s ideas of feminism can be seen.
Wharton portrays May as your typical all-American girl. She’s sweet, innocent, and follows the rules and norms. She is exactly what their society expects women to be. One could easily associate May with innocence, purity, and youth. “In her dress of white and silver, with a wreath of silver blossoms in her hair, the tall girl looked like a Diana just alight from the chase” (Wharton pg. 63). May was the product of Old New York’s society. She longs for a happy marriage and having a big happy family of her own. May’s soon to be husband Newland, tries to change her. However, she fails to go against the rules society has set for women. Wharton gives Ellen intellectual freedom, feminine charms, and an artistic eye. Ellen dresses in provocative clothes and pays no attention to the white tulle women in Old New York, like her cousin May, were expected or accustomed to wear. May was the American girl with the slim body and innocent mind while Ellen was dark, passionate, and experienced. Ellen was different from May in every aspect even in the way she was artistic. Ellen was something out of the normal. She had the ability to turn something old and shabby into “something intimate, "foreign," subtly suggestive of old romantic scenes and sentiments” (Wharton, pg. 69). Ellen also has an original point of view on life. One that many women lacked in Old New York. Ellen valued her liberty and freedom. She thought there was no point in a marriage if it is unhappy. She believed marriage was nothing more than a restriction. Ellen pretty much goes against all the social and moral codes that exists at that time. For example, marriage. Marriage was the ultimate destination for most women but not for Ellen. Ellen’s ultimate destination is being freed from restrictions. This is where we can see the feminism view in Wharton’s book. All Ellen wanted was the same rights and equality as the men. She wanted to be able to do as pleased, dress as pleased, talk as pleased, and act as pleased. Through the feminism approach, Wharton’s story carries a theme of society and class. The world of the characters in “The Age of Innocence” revolve around their image in the society’s eye. The characters live terrorize by the possibility of being excluded. They are the upper class of New York in the 1870’s and they want to maintain the image they have created for their class, family name, and themselves. They live in a world in which appearance is everything, one in which certain families have all the wealth and are above everyone else, and in a world in which everything is governed by rules. The way you dress is governed by rules or expectations. The person and family you marry into is also governed by rules or expectations even if you are not completely in love or completely sure about marrying that person. This is what happened to Newland Anchor. He was expected to marry May because she was the perfect product of Old New York’s society. Despite how “perfect” May was, Anchor was not sure of his marriage with her. “That terrifying product of the social system he belonged to and believed in, the young girl who knew nothing and expected everything, looked back at him like a stranger through May Welland's familiar features; and once more it was borne in on him that marriage was not the safe anchorage he had been taught to think, but a voyage on uncharted seas” (Wharton pg. 40).